30 Apr
  • By Jess Drewett

Spotlighting Shebeen Struggles

This is the second blog in the ‘Livelihood Struggles’ series. It highlights livelihood struggles specific to the liquor sector in townships, one sector of several core sectors SLF has identified in the course of its research. This is a staff blog, written by Caitlin Tonkin, with research additions from Andrew Hartnack.


 “(1) A Person may not micro-manufacture or sell liquor unless authorised to do so in terms of a licence… (3) A person who… micro-manufactures or sells liquor in contravention of [subsection (1)] is guilty of an offence…” (Western Cape Liquor Act of 2008)

In the Western Cape, these are the (basic) laws which determine who can and can’t sell liquor and where they can and can’t sell it. Passed about eight years ago, the way these laws have hit the ground in townships amounts to prohibition. Prohibition, in townships, threatens the economic survival of thousands of people.


Quincy is one of those people. A South African living in Delft, Quincy opened a shebeen (an illegal liquor outlet) to try to make ends meet. Of obtaining a licence so that his sales would be legal, he explains: “I tried to get a licence, but it was too much. The bar was too high. I tried three separate times to apply, and I paid around R 28 000 in all for the applications… The process was so bad and there were lots of excuses from the liquor board, so I gave up.”


Click on infographic to see in full.
Click on infographic to see in full.

In brief, the township/liquor picture that Quincy is part of looks like this: there is a demand for liquor and spaces of liquor consumption (this demand is created as much by a desire for alcohol as it is by a desire for spaces of recreation and sociability ekasi). In response to this demand, people desperately needing an income to put food on the table start selling liquor. A handful of these people make money enough to surpass the day-to-day needs of families and to start secondary businesses, like hair salons or spazas; many, however, make minimal incomes and sell liquor because alternative options do not exist for them. Either way, liquor becomes the staple of micro-enterprises of varying sizes, and forms an important part of the township leisure economy.


Enter into this picture the requirement of the Western Cape Liquor Act that liquor traders must be licenced. The problem isn’t so much with the requirement that liquor traders are licenced – SLF’s research has found that many traders, like Quincy, want to enter into the Act’s regulatory framework. The problem is that the requirements to get a licence are nearly impossible to fulfil from a position of poverty and informality.


requirements-sketchIn researching the liquor sector in townships, SLF recorded story after story of people hitting a stonewall of requirements when trying to legalise their liquor micro-enterprises. One shebeen owner tried to get a licence through an agent, but the agent was fraudulent (a common occurrence) and the owner was cheated out of R 300. Now she will not apply for a licence anyway because she thinks that people who live in shacks are not considered. A similar view is held by another shebeen owner who says: “… the Liquor board said if you are doing business (shebeening) in a squatter camp you are not supposed to get a licence, but if I add two toilets and make my place better then they would reconsider it.”


“The problem is that the requirements to get a licence are nearly impossible to fulfil from a position of poverty or informality.”


Unable to acquire licences and formalise their businesses, township liquor sellers must either operate illegally and endure (or be broken by) police harassment, or close and forgo the income (albeit minimal) brought in by liquor sales. Noma, a domestic worker from Delft, has experienced both sides of that particular coin: “When I was raided, they used to take me away and lock me up overnight. Although I knew I could make the money back, there was now nobody to look after my children while I was away… this could not go on as my kids were young. So I closed the shebeen… The income (from domestic work) does not compare at all… If it weren’t for the licence I would go back to selling alcohol tomorrow.” Not all shebeeners are as successful as Noma was, earning R 1000 or less a month – and yet the persistence of even these small-scale shebeeners in the face of police harassment and imprisonment speaks to the lack of alternative income options in townships.


Quincy, Noma and others’ experiences indicate that the Western Cape Liquor Act is not in fact working to regulate the township liquor sector – on the ground, it is operating as a prohibition act, with detrimental effect to the many township micro-enterprises dependent on selling liquor. What is needed is a liquor policy which recognises the potential of the township liquor sector to play a developmental role in townships. In the words of one shebeener: “Shebeens should not close at all, because people are making a life out of it. The government must channel the money into development…” Should the Western Cape government remain intent upon eliminating township shebeens, then it is incumbent on them to create and support other employment options.

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